One of the city's oldest landmarks is also one of its least-known ... and it's in danger of disappearing.
The Milwaukee Soldiers Home Historic District at the Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Administration Center will be added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
The designation will hopefully jump-start efforts to restore the crumbling buildings which have fallen victim to years of wear, tear and the elements.
The Soldiers Home was one of three national centers established by President Abraham Lincoln following the conclusion of the Civil War. The Milwaukee facility – then the Northwest National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers – was formally established in 1865.
Of the three original facilities, Milwaukee's is the most intact and is the only one with the majority of its surrounding recuperative village remaining.
Last November, part of the roof collapsed on the original building, known as "Old Main." Other buildings, including the theater and chapel, which was opened in 1889, are in serious disrepair and need massive structural upgrades in addition to cosmetic repair.
"It's a shame," says Ali Kopyt of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance. "This is a testament to the veterans in this area and these buildings are falling a part. Preservation issues often come down to 'preservation/or' ... it doesn't have to be an 'either/or.' We could bring these buildings back for the sake of caring for veterans, not just for the sake of bringing them back."
"Old Main," recognized by its famous tower, visible from I-94 and Miller Park, was designed by renowned local architect Edward Townsend Mix and opened in 1869. Later, as the facility grew, more buildings were added, including barracks, officers' quarters, a second hospital facility and what would become the Ward Memorial Theater.
All of those buildings were designed by Henry C. Koch, who also designed Milwaukee's City Hall.
The grounds became a popular destination, not just for veterans, but for all Milwaukeeans. They took the train to the facility to walk the grounds and take in shows at the Ward Theater, which opened in 1881. Famous entertainers like Will Rogers, Bob Hope, George Jessel, Burns and Allen, Sophie Tucker, Ethel Merman, Nat King Cole and Liberace all performed at the theater, which remained in operation until the mid-20th century.
Currently, there is no price tag on a potential restoration project. The Soldiers' Home Foundation is currently developing a master plan for future repairs and uses.
"At the very least, maybe we could get a tarp on "Old Main,"" Kopyt says. "Everything that happened this winter has come through that hole in the roof."
Today, the Historic District grounds are still popular with visitors, many of whom are unaware of the park-like atmosphere tucked between Miller Park and National Avenue. The opening of the Hank Aaron State Trail, which follows the route of the rail line which once brought patients and visitors to the grounds, has helped increase awareness.
"You don't see that as your driving by," Kopyt says. "You just see the beautiful white chapel out of the corner of your eye. It's not until you get up close that you see the care that they need."
A fundraising campaign is currently underway to restore the chapel building, which lies on the edge of the cemetery. The building was closed in 1989 – its 100th anniversary – and today is fenced off while the building crumbles.
Approximately $200,000 has been raised so far. The money has been used to complete lead, asbestos and animal abatement as well as architectural plans and a required Historic Structures Report.
The Milwaukee Soldiers Home Foundation has received $1.37 million in tax credits from the National Park Service towards the project, which has an estimated total price tag of $6 million.
Over the last 24 years, the Most Endangered Historic Places list has identified more than 200 one-of-a-kind historic treasures including urban districts, rural landscapes, sports venues and Native American landmarks.
The list spotlights historic places that are threatened by neglect, insufficient funds, inappropriate development or insensitive public policy. Inclusion on the list has been a powerful tool for raising awareness and obtaining the resources necessary to restore or protect historic landmarks.
In addition to the Soldiers Home, this year's list also includes:
- Bear Butte, Meade County, S.D.
- Belmead-on-the-James, Powhatan County, Va.
- China Alley, Handord, Calif.
- Fort Gaines, Dauphin Island, Ala.
- Greater Chaco Landscape, N.M.
- Issac Manchester Farm, Avella, Pa.
- John Coltrane House, Dix Hills, N.Y.
- Pillsbury A Mill, Minneapolis
- Prentice Women's Hospital, Chicago